Blindness at the Times

DevilishBill2In reviewing Bill Maher’s new film, Religulous, Stephen Holden of The New York Times has achieved an unusual thing: A written reflection that is even less informed than the film it discusses.

Holden’s chief blunders follow.

There is no arguing with faith.

Somebody please notify Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges so they will stop wasting their time, as in this encounter on YouTube.

The majority of Americans, however, embrace some form of blind faith. But because that faith by its very nature requires a leap into irrationality, it is almost impossible to explain or to defend in rational terms.

This would be news to Hadley Arkes, the Dalai Lama or Tim Keller, who oversees a humble flock at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Mr. Maher has already established his position as an agnostic in his HBO comedy series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” A recent clash on the program with his frequent guest the blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, who is a Roman Catholic, illustrated how believers and those who doubt might as well be from different planets. They can argue with each other in fairly reasonable voices about politics, but not about faith.

Yet the fire-breathing Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath somehow are rational and even friendly in this discussion on Google Video.

In a small journalistic coup Mr. Maher interviews a Roman Catholic priest in front of the Vatican, who laughingly agrees with him that the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church are nonsense that are not to be taken literally. Mr. Maher, unfortunately, doesn’t press him on why he wears priestly vestments and presumes to exert religious authority.

Yes, if anything critical can be said of Maher, it’s that he’s not aggressive enough — as a journalist, no less.

When “Religulous” turns from evangelical Christianity to Judaism and Islam, its tone becomes uncertain and its rhythm choppy. An attitude of glib condescension is inadequate to address clashing religions that have turned the Middle East into an ideological cauldron. Jihadism and Orthodox Judaism are red-hot topics that Mr. Maher addresses too sketchily to convey the same authority he brings to Christianity.

I couldn’t agree more that an “attitude of glib condescension is inadequate” — not just in understanding the Middle East, but in understanding any faith at all.

Image: Bill Maher at Hollywood Hellhouse, September 2004, photographed by Nora Murphy.

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  • Martha

    I’m getting a good laugh here from Andrew Sullivan as the representative of illogical, irrational, blindly believing faith fanatics.

    Yeah, Andy, you should wise up and drop the unquestioning kissing of the Pope’s toe!

  • Citizen Grim

    I’m chuckling alongside you, Martha. Andrew Sullivan – the gay columnist who was devastated at B16′s selection – is somehow a representative for orthodox Christian faith?

    What’s ridiculous is how often people suggest that religious people are by definition “irrational.” Right. Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard and Francis Schaeffer… well known examples of “irrationality.”

    Even today, there are plenty of Christian philosophers who would dismantle Maher’s hubris in a completely rational and logical way. William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland or Norman Geisler, Richard Swinburne or even Benedict XVI himself.

  • Brian Walden

    The NYT listed several examples from the movie that I assume are supposed to be shocking – yet they’re just normal.

    Returning later to Senator Pryor, Mr. Maher suggests that many evangelicals look forward to the end of the world, when it is prophesied that Jesus will return. The senator doesn’t dispute him.

    Which Christians haven’t looked forward to Jesus’ return at the end of the world. It’s the basis of our hope.

    John Westcott, a former homosexual who is now married and the director of Exchange Ministries in Winter Park, Fla., an organization whose mission is to reorient sexuality, can only smile when Mr. Maher reminds him that Jesus never addressed the subject of homosexuality.

    I wasn’t aware there was a denomination that believes in sola rufus scriptura. (I’m sure I butchered that Latin it’s supposed to be “by red scripture alone”)

    At a Christian theme park where the passion of Christ is re-enacted in a tacky musical pageant, the actor playing Jesus compares the Holy Trinity to the three states of water: liquid, ice and vapor.

    And St. Patrick compared the Holy Trinity to a clover – GASP!

    Maybe the movie treats these subjects more in depth revealing that the Senator believes that Jesus will return next Tuesday at 3pm EST, Wescott has hateful reasons for attempting to reorient sexuality, and the theme park completely botches Trinitarian theology; but this review reminded me of national geographic style reporting on the backward natives who still practice religion in the 21st century.

    It’s all the more disappointing because Holden showed that he was capable of insight – like when he questioned why the priest who thought the Church was full of it was still a Catholic.

  • Jerry

    I assume that movie reviews are not subject to the same journalistic standards as regular news reports? Or is that just my assumption based on how badly the review was written?

  • FW Ken

    Reading the review, I found it hard to distinguish the reviewer’s voice from that of Maher. Which is saying “there is no arguing with faith”?

    This matters to me because I dismissed Bill Maher years ago as a buffoon too stupid to make a rational argument. Should I also dismiss this reviewer?

    What can one say to the breathless claim that religions (Christianity, chiefly) “are dangerous fairy tales and myths that have incited barbarous purges and holy wars? The first thought in my head when I hear some version of this is to wish that Mao, Stalin, and Hitler had been atheists! How much suffering might have been saved.

  • Mike Hickerson

    In an AP story about the movie, Maher’s co-producer, Larry Charles, compared Christianity and Islam by saying “I believe Jesus is God, you believe Mohammed is God,” so Maher & Charles can’t even get right the basic tenets of the religions they mock, not that they care.

    In terms of film review standards, I think reviewers are stuck in a hard place with films like this. Your typical fiction film is reviewed based on its aesthetics, plot, writing, etc. Only rarely does its treatment of subject matter come under review, and the review is typically the sole opinion of the reviewer (i.e. he doesn’t go out and get a quote from Stephen King on M. Night Shyamalan’s use of foreshadowing). I would expect nonfiction documentaries to be reviewed on those artistic issues plus their handling of the subject matter, but very few documentaries receive full length movie reviews in MSM. Movies like Religulous, Michael Moore’s stuff, Expelled, etc., exist in a no man’s land between entertainment, education, and propaganda. I don’t think that a typical movie review is really the right way to approach them. Sure, Maher is trying to make the movie funny and entertaining, but he is also making an argument about the nature of religion that the typical movie reviewer is not equipped (or expected) to handle.

  • Dave G.

    Movies like Religulous, Michael Moore’s stuff, Expelled, etc., exist in a no man’s land between entertainment, education, and propaganda.

    Quote of the day.

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  • Will

    Holden writes as though he does not know that “blind faith” is two words.

    And Jesus never addressed, e.g., pushing drugs. I again think of the Asimov line that “a double negative makes a poor excuse.”

    We in the New Church do not look for Jesus to return in the future… Modernists like to talk about “realized eschatology”, but only we go the whole hog.
    (Of course, now I am bracing for someone to tell me that we are not “real” Christians.)

  • Will

    Mike, from a certain point of view, that serves Moslems right, as the Koran asserts that Jews worship “Ezra”.

  • FW Ken

    One wonders why Maher didn’t find time to interview Texas Baptists for his movie. But then, those folks were busy serving 8000 meals a day on the Texas coast post-Ike. They were busy providing health care to the evacuees. They were busy with cleanup.

    So maybe they, and folks like them, don’t have time for folks like Bill Maher.

  • David (in Edinburgh)

    Thanks for the link the the (fantastic) Dawkins-McGrath conversation. These guys are so good to watch – knowing each other’s answer before they even finish answering the question, but still remaining polite and academic.
    Great stuff, much appreciated.

  • Stoo

    “Holden’s chief blunders follow:

    There is no arguing with faith.”

    Is this a journalistic error, or an opinion you disagree with?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Stoo, I guess it depends on whether you think the declarative sentence “There is no arguing with faith” is an indisputable fact.

    My link in response to the point suggests that it’s quite disputable — and, I would suggest, flat-out wrong.

  • Dave2

    Douglas LeBlanc wrote:

    Stoo, I guess it depends on whether you think the declarative sentence “There is no arguing with faith” is an indisputable fact.

    My link in response to the point suggests that it’s quite disputable — and, I would suggest, flat-out wrong.

    Well, if movie reviews had to cut out all the sentences that fell short of being “an indisputable fact”, we’d be in a fine mess.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I take your point, Dave, and I’m not saying every sentence in a review has to be an indisputable fact.

    Stoo asked one question about one sentence, and I addressed only that sentence.

  • Dave2

    Well, it looked like you were doing more than just disagreeing with Holden’s sentence (I certainly would disagree with that sentence). It looked like you were criticizing him qua journalist. And so I thought Holden’s journalistic right to throw half-baked opinions into his movie reviews needed some defending.

    If I’ve misunderstood your original criticism, then I apologize.